Medical anomalies, human conditions

A new historical photograph collection from the Mutter Museum honors the human side of rare conditions

By | January 4, 2008

In a photograph taken at a Shanghai hospital in 1894, Yu Yung Lan appears pregnant. Her belly curves outward in the familiar oblong curve of expecting mothers, but hers is nearly six feet in circumference, overbearing her body, and stretching her skin to its limit. Yu suffered from an abnormally large ovarian tumor, one that weighed 182 pounds. Images of Yu and other patients suffering from abnormal medical conditions in the nineteenth century appear in Mütter Museum: Historic Medical Photographs, released in November. The book organizes the previously unorganized photograph collection of Philadelphia's Mütter Museum into medical categories such as amputation, dermatological disorders and paralysis. The book, like the museum, is not intended as a printed form of a circus side show, but a demonstration of the humanity inherent in these and all medical cases. The wry smile of Jennie Savage lying in a hospital cot in 1899 due to her enlarged heart; the restlessness of Theodore Scrivener, with precocious sexual development, who squirms naked in Dr. Robert King's lap while posing for a daguerreotype in 1852; or the blank stare of Yu Yung Lan in 1895, with her shirt pulled open to expose her scars after the removal of her tumor: these images present the emotions of the patients as much as the conditions that afflict them. The book was edited and published by Laura Lindgren. "When you come in [the museum], you learn about nineteenth-century medicine and diseases, but you're also confronted with the evidence of these people's lives," Lindgren says. "Gretchen [Worden, former director of the museum] used to say we're taught all our lives that if you see someone different on the street, you're not supposed to look at them. But when you go into that museum, that's what you do. You're free of all the social inhibitions about it -- you're there kind of to honor these people by taking a look at what happened to them." This is the second book that Lindgren has produced for the museum. The first, The Mütter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, published in 2002, contained images of the museum's exhibits: the fused skeleton of Harry Eastlack, who suffered from Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, or the the plaster cast of Siamese twins Chang & Eng, who were conjoined at the liver. Both books, Lindgren said, are meant to extend the original mission of the museum set forth by creator Thomas Mütter in 1858, to "serve at once the cause of science and humanity." For a slideshow of medical images from the museum, click here. Jonathan Scheff Images provided by Blast Books, Inc. and copyrighted in 2007 by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Correction (posted January 4): When originally posted, the article said the book was the work of Gretchen Worden and Laura Lindgren. Lindgren is the sole creator. The Scientist regrets the error. Links within this article: P. Kenny et al, "The Ecology of Tumors," The Scientist, April 1, 2006. L. Lindgren, editor, Mütter Museum: Historic Medical Photographs, 2007. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, The Mütter Museum The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Gretchen Worden biography G. Worden, The Mütter Museum, 2002. C. Choi, "Twins diverge," The Scientist, May 1, 2007.

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